Best Book Club Picks for April: New Fiction by Emma Donoghue and More
The rest of the world may be waiting anxiously for this little ice age of ours to end, but fiction fans need not pin their hopes to so ephemeral a thing as the weather. April is a fantastic month for fiction, bringing us new books by award winners and critical favorites including Emma Donoghue, Lydia Davis, Akhil Sharma, and Julia Glass. Though the works display the kind of range you’d expect from a group of so variously talented writers, a few themes do stand out: This seems to be the month for historical fiction—with Francine Prose whisking readers to Lost Generation Paris, and Ayelet Waldman to World War II Europe—as well as for the multigenerational family saga. From a tragicomic tale of Indian immigrants in America to a suspenseful story about a spinster at war with a sheep murderer, these books will keep book clubs entertained even as they provoke important discussions about connection, isolation, and memory.
Are you my father?
In her National Book Award-winning debut novel Three Junes, Julia Glass tracked the fortunes and failures of a single Scottish family over three generations, examining the incongruities and resonances between past and present as she did. In And the Dark Sacred Night, she treads similar territory, with a story about a stagnating family man and art historian, Kit Noonan, who goes in search of his father (the identity of whom his mother kept a secret). Along the way, as in a fable, Kit connects or reconnects with a variety of characters—“a take-no-prisoners outdoorsman” among them—who aid him in his investigation. Glass already proved her fluency with clan dynamics in Three Junes; And the Dark Sacred Night (which borrows at least one character from that novel) promises to be yet another memorable and complex tale about family.
Gilt-edged guilt in World War II Hungary
Ayelet Waldman is married to the novelist Michael Chabon, and if her new novel is any indication, husband and wife share a common literary M.O. Like many of Chabon’s novels (the most recent example being Telegraph Avenue), Love and Treasure is a big-canvas, multigenerational historical saga about family, memory, loss, and the redemptive power of art. The story focuses on the real-life Hungarian Gold Train—a train used by the Nazis to transport heaps of stolen valuables—with the action shifting between World War II and the present day. As the book follows a young woman’s attempt to uncover her grandfather’s history (and that of Europe), it swells into a larger examination of guilt, greed, and the inescapability of the past.
Bullets and burlesque in boomtown
In her bestselling novel Room, Emma Donoghue wowed readers (and book clubs) with her ability to spin a rich tale within the confines of what may be literature’s most microscopic setting—a single, small dreary room. Her latest, Frog Music, gives readers more space to run around in, but other plot devices create similarly drama-igniting constraints: This is San Francisco in 1876, in the midst of both a smallpox epidemic and heat wave, and the best friend of burlesque dancer Blanche Beunon has just been shot. Based on a true story, the novel moves about capaciously—“free-love bohemians, desperate paupers, and arrogant millionaires” all fall within its purview—as Beunon attempts to solve the crime and uncover the mystery of the friend she lost. Dubbed “genius” by novelist Darin Strauss, Frog Music is unmissable—a novel bound to be one of the most talked about of the year.
They’ll always have Paris
Another new historical novel involving an enigmatic woman is Francine Prose’s Lovers as the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932. The time and place give us a big clue about what lies within: the Twenties and Thirties marked the peak of the “Lost Generation,” and Paris was its pulsing epicenter. The story revolves around the regulars of the swanky jazz club of the title, in particular Lou Villars, “an extraordinary athlete and scandalous cross-dressing lesbian,” and Gabor Tsenyi, a photographer. It’s a provocative photograph of Gabor’s that provides a focal point for the story, which moves from the Twenties into “darker times,” tracking the fates of the characters as they undergo increasingly deep transformations. Prose has already established herself as a remarkable, and remarkably daring, novelist. But, in its scope and experimentation, Lovers feels like her most ambitious project yet: a robust book that will swing readers back to an exotic, romantic, and troubling decade.
Mary had a little lamb—and then she didn’t
In these days of device addiction and social media overload, we’re inundated with tales of people disconnecting and going off the grid—or, alternately, arguments about why such Thoreauvian endeavors might be ill-conceived. Enter into this discussion British literary "It" girl Evie Wyld’s new novel, All the Birds, Singing. Heroine Jake Whyte’s idyllic life is a would-be unplugger’s fantasy: She lives alone with a flock of sheep on a remote, rain-battered British island, disconnected from both the distractions of the present-day and the traumas of the past (scars on her back hint at a painful history). But when a mysterious figure begins killing her sheep at night, her carefully cultivated isolation begins to fall apart. If the novel’s drama seems lifted from a Robert Herrick sonnet, that’s part of its promise. The dream of running away to a land before time—a pre-Internet world of silence and sheep—is due for close literary inspection. Even as its suspense sucks readers in, the book raises big questions about isolation, disconnection, and man’s relationship with the natural world in the 21st century.
Hacking, with heart
Two young boys get in way over their heads while investigating the private lives of their parents in this new novel by Mona Simpson, the author of Anywhere But Here (and, trivia!, Steve Jobs's sister). Displaying a mix of acumen and naïveté that calls to mind the beloved protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the boys—one of whose parents are separating—engage in increasingly intricate surveillance activities (searching drawers, bugging telephones, and hacking computers) until they encounter a secret that has major, real-world ramifications. It’s a humorous and heartwarming story, but one replete with sly commentary on our age of domestic espionage, privacy anxiety, and over-mediated relationships.
Are you there, Superman? It’s me, Ajay
In this new novel by critically acclaimed author Akhil Sharma (An Obedient Father), a too-good-to-be-true coming-to-America story takes a tragic twist when an accident leaves one of two young brothers brain-damaged and the other near-orphaned. With an edge of dark comedy—the orphaned protagonist seeks consolation from a Superman-esque God—Sharma explores the status of that faulty but unrelenting thing, the American dream, while offering up incisive observations of Indian-American cultural exchange.
More puzzling comedy from a short story great
Book clubs accustomed to discussing long and sweeping novels might be jarred by Lydia Davis’s blurb-length tales—which is part of the fun. In the 28 years since her breakout collection, Break It Down, Davis has emerged as not only the master and commander of flash fiction, but also one of the greatest short story writers ever. Period. Can’t and Won’t promises more of the crystalline prose, excruciating comedy, literary playfulness, and sheer weirdness Davis fans have come to expect. Clubs will enjoy unraveling her sometimes enigmatically brief creations, and well as tackling her overarching themes, which include loneliness, anxiety, the intricate mechanics of cognition, and good old-fashioned relationship drama.
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